When the Jets selected Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson with the 13th overall pick they acquired from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Darrelle Revis, the fan base was quite shocked. The Jets had taken defensive linemen with their first and third round picks in 2011 (Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis) and also with their first round pick in 2012 (Quinton Coples). With so much talent accumulated upfront now, Richardson’s development along with the rest of the interior line could possibly be the most vital aspect to the team’s future success on defense.
When a team has holes at almost every position, an intelligent front office selects unique, often freakish talents. Often the biggest mistake teams make when drafting is selecting players and forcing them into a system, rather than selecting players and building a system that puts them in a position to succeed. This is possibly Rex Ryan’s best coaching attribute, finding a niche for each player on the roster (at least on defense). Remember when Drew Coleman was awful in coverage, but was lethal as a blitzer off the edge? How about when Eric Smith couldn’t do much right except lineup the hit stick on Wes Welker running those underneath routes? Was Darrelle Revis the best defensive back in the league before Rex put him on an island with every other team’s number one wide receiver? (The answer is no, Revis was a great corner but became the best under Rex).
Overall, my point is that Sheldon Richardson was drafted to come in and get after the quarterback from the interior defensive line. High amounts of edge rushers are selected early each year, with a very small percentage of them becoming Pro Bowl caliber players. The league has adjusted to fast, elusive edge rushers by developing more athletic offensive tackles. The most disruptive defensive player in the entire league last year was easily JJ Watt, an interior defensive linemen who seems to have an impact on every play. While the Jets fortunately have a comparable, young stud in Muhammad Wilkerson, how many teams have two disruptive talents on the interior of their D-line? Not many.
John Idzik and Rex Ryan are attempting to bring an evolution of defensive play that a majority of the league has not attempted yet: Build a roster with elite defensive players on the inside, helping the “middle class” (Our very own Joe Caporoso’s term) players on the back end and on the outside. The truth is the Jets strengths on defense don’t include safety or outside linebacker. Recent addition Antwan Barnes has posted a double digit sack season, but isn’t regarded as an elite talent commanding double teams. Calvin Pace can help stop the run, that’s about it. Dawan Landry and whoever else wins the other starting safety spot will need a lot of help from top corner Antonio Cromartie and rookie Dee Milliner. With an elite pass rush (in a passing league) directly in the face of the quarterback, the play on the back end of the defense elevates.
There are three different types of defensive linemen in the NFL. First, you have a prototypical run stuffer, such as Mike DeVito, who held the edge well and wrapped up running backs, but rarely ever got a push against the pass. Second, there is elusive defensive tackles, much what Richardson is projected to be. While these players are often a disastrous assignment for centers and guards to pass protect against, they often get swallowed against the run. Third, there are complete players like JJ Watt and Muhammad Wilkerson. Both of these guys are big, fast, and impossible to block one on one against both the run and the pass.
Having a player like Wilkerson on your defensive line allows you to take a gamble on a player like Richardson, who might struggle against the run as a rookie. More importantly is how well Quinton Coples adjusts his reps at outside linebacker and the team’s “rush” position. Coples was surprisingly strong against the run as a rookie playing with his hand in the dirt on the inside. If Coples shows he can hold his own on the edge, the Jets are once again carving individual niches for each player in their defense. Wilkerson will demand double teams early and often, often opening one on one match ups for a speedy edge rusher in Antwan Barnes.
Although it’s been a slow rebuild with limited draft picks until this past April, the strength of the Jets defense has completely turned outside in. John Idzik and Rex Ryan have a blueprint to develop an elite defense in the long run, not just a one year wonder. With $50 million in potential cap space opening up next offseason, the Jets didn’t need to reach for a safety or outside linebacker. The new regime in place believes in stockpiling talent, not filling in needs. Team’s that load up on talent are often capable of covering up their blemishes, giving the Jets defense a potentially very, very bright future.